By Emil Danielyan
A leading international human rights organization has called on the Armenian authorities to release the editor of a pro-opposition newspaper who was imprisoned two years ago for evading military service.
Arman Babajanian, who founded and edited the “Zhamanak Yerevan” newspaper, was arrested in June 2006 and subsequently sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Armenian courts convicted him of forging documents to dodge military draft. While pleading guilty to the accusations, Babajanian says that he would not have been prosecuted shortly after his return to Armenia from the United States had his newspaper been loyal to the government.
“We consider the additional 1.5 years that he has yet to serve are disproportionate to the offense, and call on you to review his case and grant him early release,” Holly Cartner, the Europe and Central Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a Thursday letter to Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian.
“Babajanian’s release would send a positive signal to both Armenia’s international partners and to the Armenian public that you and other senior officials are concerned about the present critical state of human rights in Armenia and taking concrete steps to address particular concerns,” Cartner said.
Under Armenian law, convicts that have served at least one third of their prison sentences can ask a special commission appointed by the president of the republic to release them on parole. Babajanian became eligible for parole in August last year and immediately appealed to the commission. The latter rejected the appeal even though it was seconded by the administration of Yerevan’s Nubarashen prison.
The 32-year-old editor protested against the rebuff with a brief hunger strike that appeared to have contributed to his worsening health condition. He has been kept in a prison hospital since then.
The hospital administration backed Babajanian’s second parole request submitted in December 2007, saying that he has behaved well in the institution and is suffering from cardiac problems. Ombudsman Armen Harutiunian as well as the opposition Zharangutyun party also called for his release in a separate letter to the commission. Nonetheless, the commission, dominated by senior law-enforcement officials, rejected the plea.
The authorities came under renewed pressure to free Babajanian as the latter served two years, the length of compulsory military service in Armenia, late last month. The editors of about a dozen local newspapers, most of them critical of the government, demanded his release in a joint statement issued earlier this week.